It begins with a dry itch on his legs. "Well, it's a desert, isn't it?" Locke says when Celes brushes her hand over a scaly patch, wishing she could still heal with a touch. "Let's save the potions for bleeding."
They aren't good at talking about things that are wrong. He tugs his trousers back in place, she puts the potions away, and they continue walking. Around them, scrubby vegetation begins to give way to white sand. It's easier like this, when the future is bound by the horizon.
When they stop to rest, they unroll the map and chart their course without talking about how close they are to the Phoenix Cave. They shouldn't have to; they should be past this. But the silence rings in Celes's ears, and she needs to drown it out with the song of their skin. They need to kiss each other breathless.
During the night she wakes because Locke's body is fever-warm against hers. This time she ignores his sleepy protests and pours an antidote down his throat. She has seen men die from venom they never felt injected.
The morning finds him hot and slippery with sweat, but he's more lucid than he has any right to be. "I don't feel sick," he insists. "C'mon, we're wasting daylight."
Sometimes Celes has to remind herself that she isn't his commanding officer, even when he makes it clear that he needs one. "No. We should start traveling by dark in this heat, anyway. Save the daylight for when we need it to search."
He grumbles, but he dozes regardless with his head in her lap. She runs her fingers through his hair to soothe them both. Their tent is open enough to let the breeze flow through, and she breathes in the the smell of the sand baking under the sun.
Sometimes she wonders how long this can last. What kind of life can they share, when she needs a chain of command and a city to fight for, while he needs just as fiercely to answer to no one and explore the places civilization has left untouched? She can no more leave than he can stay.
But when they do intersect, they fit together seamlessly. She slips in beside him and tucks her head against his chest to listen to his heartbeat, rapid as a sparrow's wings even in his sleep. Her arm slides under his and curves over his waist. She breathes deeply and feels his breaths fall into sync.
At dusk she jolts awake because sleeping beside Locke is like lying too close to a fire. When she rolls away, his eyes snap open; his pupils are dilated pits surrounded by gold. He stares blankly through her.
She forces her voice steady as she shakes his bare shoulders. His skin is dry now, and red as a sunburn. "Stay with me, Locke. Talk to me."
His strange eyes struggle to focus on her face. "Rachel?"
Her stomach clenches. "We're going back to Tzen," she tells him. "Don't argue with me. You need a healer."
"Celes." The hand that fumbles to her face burns, and she wishes she could still rime her skin with a thought. "I'm sorry."
"Shh. There's nothing to apologize for. You're sick." She hopes he's only sick. Everything about this is unnatural, and everything unnatural evaporated from the world months ago.
His head trembles back and forth as his fingers curl weakly around her arm. "S'posed to trust you. Said I'd trust you."
He has never forgiven himself for doubting her, long after she has. Sometimes in his sleep, his fingers dig hard into her arm, as if to stop her falling from the airship. She's never told him that she tried to kill herself and never plans to. Maranda is her secret, as well, because he would find a way to share her guilt.
"We're past that," she says, brushing his hair from his face. "Stay with me."
The encroaching darkness complicates packing up their supplies and tent, but Celes works as efficiently as she can. Locke has stopped groaning. The only sounds now are the chirping and buzzing of desert insects, the sighs of the hot wind on the cooling sand, the frantic rush of blood in her ears.
When even the edge of twilight fades, Locke's skin takes on a faint ruddy glow that cannot be blamed on the moonlight. Celes tries to pick him up but lets go with a hiss; touching him is like putting her hand on an ember.
"Locke." She wraps a blanket around her hands in order to shake him. "Locke, please."
His head tips back, and something like a crow's caw bursts from his throat. His strange eyes flick open and glow in the darkness. With a broken crooning noise, he pulls away from Celes and staggers upright on the balls of his feet.
His eyes are fixed straight in front of him; he jerks his head to focus them on her. Nothing in his gaze suggests recognition.
This is the exactly the sort of thing that shouldn't be happening anymore. The chill that lances through her is so intense that she almost believes Shiva is back beneath her skin.
"What are you?" she demands, drawing her sword. "What have you done with him?"
Locke's throat clears again and again until an oddly musical sound emerges. A melody flows from his puckered lips, soft, lilting, and wrong. Faintly familiar.
If she lets herself drift with it into memory, she can smell flowers and dust and feel the hot light that burst all the way to where she lingered awkwardly in the stairwell—
How had it gone? "Be reborn, and give your power to Locke"?
Celes shakes her head with enough force to whip her hair through her vision. "You can't be here. You can't exist. Get out of him."
Instead the thing in Locke only cocks his head at her and raises his arms. He glows too brightly now to cast a shadow; light scatters chaotically at his feet.
"Let him go!" The tip of her sword snaps to his throat, but the threat is empty. His head twists to watch his shining reflection on the blade.
The air around him chokes like a furnace. The light inside him intensifies in pulses until she can see veins and bones through his translucent skin. When Locke's arms twitch, a gust of searing wind knocks her backward.
Her sword is no good here, so she lets it fall. "He's not your vessel, Phoenix. You can't have him. Let him go."
Instead Locke's body rises into the air. Celes lunges and grabs his leg, biting back a cry at the pain that blisters her palms. He burns like an engine. Smoke curls from his mouth and nostrils.
How much hotter can he blaze before he bursts into ash?
"Locke, you have to fight it!" Tears blur her vision. Her palms throb in agony. "Let go!" she shouts, over and over, until she doesn't know which one she's addressing.
His twists his head so that the gold-ringed bead of his eye fixes on her. She reads the challenge in it. There can be no rebirth without death, no fresh start that doesn't obliterate all that came before.
Before, hopeless, she saw the appeal. She holds fast now. Her teeth grind against her pain. "He doesn't need this." Darkness creeps into the edges of her vision. "Locke, you don't need this."
If she holds on, she may burn with him, but she will not abandon him.
He kicks awkwardly, arms flailing. She doesn't let go. The music spilling from his throat breaks and crackles. The nerves in her palms are bursting, unable to tell her whether he's charring her down to the bone. She won't get go.
When he falls suddenly like a star, she collapses with him on the sand, flesh fused to his flesh. Her vision dims further.
"Celes?" The voice in her darkness is hoarse, breathless, frantic. "Celes!"
Holding on hurts. Anything worthwhile hurts.
"Your hands—here, look, I'm here, please—"
Cool liquid runs over her wrists a moment before sensation stings its way back into the edges of her palms. With a startled hiss, Celes forces her eyes open.
Locke's face looms, now properly silvered by moonlight and with eyes that only reflect. His fingers pry gingerly at her grip on his leg. "Say something," he croaks. "Please. I'm so sorry."
Her muscles tremble loose. Even the potent analgesics in the potion can't blot out the pain of regenerating flesh, but Celes has survived worse. She smiles weakly. "We're both here."
The contents of four phials soak into her hands before Locke lets her look at them. Even in the moonlight, she can see that the new skin is shiny and pink, almost too taut to flex. Curling her fingers aches.
"I'm sorry," Locke says again. There's still a hint of smoke on his voice. "I shouldn't have let it get to me like that. I've been hearing it in my dreams, but I figured I was just dreaming."
He still isn't good at accepting protection gracefully. Celes lets him help her sit up as she replies, "You would have done the same for me."
Tension rolls like rain from his shoulders. "Yeah, I would. Always."
For a while they only breathe together, listening to the desert. If the sand or breeze bothers his bare skin, he gives no sign of it. Her palms tingle against his.
When their breaths are slow and steady, Celes asks, "Why was it still with you?"
Locke's fingers fidget together. "I don't know. It's not that I wanted to forget everything. I guess part of me..." His gaze drops. "Part of me is scared that I'm never going to put some things behind me."
Bury the dead, and the ghosts linger. She still can't smell fish without remembering the chill of Cid's skin, or hear a child scream without falling back into Maranda. "You're not. All you can change is how you carry them."
His lips twitch into an almost-smile. "Know what I like about you? You never lie to make me feel better."
The noise that comes out of her wobbles between a laugh and a hiccup. She tips forward to rest her forehead against his.
Why is it easier to risk her life than loosen her tongue? She focuses on the ache in her hands as she says, haltingly, "I want this to work."
Locke is still for a moment, then gently tips her chin so that their eyes meet. "So do I." Then, softer, inclining his head at their packed tent: "We're both here."
Tzen is in no real hurry to find out what remains of its lost outpost. Celes unrolls a blanket and wraps it around them both, then leans against him. They have a canopy of stars and hours until dawn.
"Talk to me," he says, and she does; he's worth the hurt.